Hockey’s regular season may last for more than six months, but just because each team competes to earn two points in every one of its 82 games doesn’t mean that some matchups are simply more important than others.
For a team like the Philadelphia Flyers, who have already experienced a number of tests of character, certain regular season games will determine not only whether or not the team racks up enough points to qualify for the postseason, but also whether or not the players can perform when the pressure is on.
If the Flyers can deliver good performances in these twelve pre-All-Star break games, the team will have a load of confidence heading into the playoffs.
If they cannot, it may be an early exit for the Broad Street Bullies.
In a 2011 playoff rematch, the Flyers will be forced to contend with Ryan Miller and a Sabres team that feels the Northeast Division is theirs to lose in 2011-12.
At 6-4-0, Buffalo is not off to the hot start it expected this season, but the Sabres sit in position to pounce with twelve points in ten games and the surprising Senators and Maple Leafs ahead of them in the division.
No team in the Eastern Conference has allowed fewer goals than the Sabres, presenting a challenge for a Flyers offense that has been hot and cold this season. The defense will have to be sturdy and the offense opportunistic in order to knock off Buffalo this week.
The game against the Sabres will test how the Flyers perform against a strong defensive team. This matchup with Tampa Bay will show the hockey world how the Broad Street Bullies handle a little offensive firepower.
With the likes of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis in the lineup, Flyers defenders will have more than their share of hard work on their hands. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov will be tested, and a strong performance against an offensively stacked team may help him break out of his frustrating slump.
If Tampa lights the lamp more than twice, it could be the start of a very long winter for the Flyers’ goaltender.
How could a Winter Classic preview NOT be on this list?
The first Flyers-Rangers matchup of the year needs no extra hype. The two teams have hated each other for decades and have been at the center of a number of interesting storylines, highlighted by everything from Mike Keenan’s exit from Philadelphia and eventual Stanley Cup in New York and the bidding war for Eric Lindros.
But a little more hype never hurt anyone. With the old-school rivals slated to face off in hockey’s traditional outdoor game on January 2nd, this November matchup will be a chance for the teams to observe the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and will help formulate the game plan for the Winter Classic matchup.
If the Flyers let themselves get pushed around by Ryan Callahan and Co., the Rangers may find themselves as the Bullies of Broad Street after New Year’s.
The Flyers hate no team more than the Penguins, and while the gritty Mike Richards has left the City of Brotherly Love, there is still plenty of bad blood between the Keystone rivals.
Pittsburgh is poised to be one of the top contenders in the East by December, and the Flyers may find themselves looking up at the cross-state rivals before this game.
This one will be a statement game for the Flyers: the new-look team can compete with the Pens every bit as well as the old version did. There will be no love lost in this one, and if Sidney Crosby is eligible to play, the boo-birds will be out in South Philly.
The season is still young, but there is little reason not to believe that the Washington Capitals could very well be leading the Eastern Conference by the time December 13th rolls around.
The Caps already beat the Flyers once, a decisive 5-2 victory in Philly. This game is a chance for the Flyers to avenge a big loss and show the NHL that they can compete with the league’s elite.
Beating the Capitals requires just as much defensive prowess as it does offensive firepower these days, as the Caps are firing on all cylinders. The Flyers will need to play 60 minutes of great hockey to have a chance of winning the game.
If Philadelphia falters, it will be difficult to argue that the team has what it takes to be an elite group this season.
Much like the Washington game, this matchup affords the Flyers the opportunity to avenge a frustrating loss, a 5-1 defeat in Quebec that saw the team lose a 1-0 lead and never look back.
The Canadiens are frustrating. They don’t play nice, the fans are obnoxious, and the skaters are arrogant. The Habs are capable of forcing opponents to play their game, and the Flyers fell into the trap in the first meeting between the teams.
Silencing the crowd in Montreal will take a solid effort on all fronts, but there is little feeling more comforting to a player than silently chanting “Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye” as the fans head for the exits early.
As of this writing, the Dallas Stars have the best record in the Western Conference, and if the team spends the next two months proving that this impressive start is not a fluke, the Flyers will find their hands full during a five-game road trip before New Year’s Day.
This matchup in Texas will be surrounded by distractions, including the preparation for the Winter Classic, an upcoming game against the Rangers, and the eventual Winter Classic game less than two weeks later. On top of that, HBO will be filming the team for its 24/7 series.
For this game, the matchups on the ice will be every bit as difficult as the rumblings off the ice. Only a team with focus, determination and leadership will be competitive in a game like this one.
The Flyers’ last game of 2011 will pit them against the Penguins with the Winter Classic on the horizon.
While trying to avoid the distraction of preparing for hockey’s biggest stage, the Flyers will be facing off against one of the most successful teams in the East, and one that wouldn’t mind stealing a little thunder before Philadelphia hosts the Winter Classic.
This game will also end a five-game road trip, meaning that the Flyers will need to go the extra mile to ensure they are mentally prepared for the game.
Hearing the boos for Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot may give the team the motivation it needs to close out 2011 in style.
Citizens Bank Park. Winter Classic. Flyers vs. Rangers.
No further explanation needed.
So much of Philadelphia’s season will be spent talking about and focusing on the Winter Classic, so this first game afterwards may prove to be a difficult one for the Flyers.
Coming off the high of hockey’s biggest stage will not be easy, and facing the Chicago Blackhawks will be even more difficult.
A game like this one will show if the Flyers are capable of putting one important game behind them and preparing for the next. If they cannot, the team can kiss its Stanley Cup hopes goodbye.
Even though the Sens are unlikely to continue their early-season hot streak, this January 8th contest will prove to be a difficult task of the Flyers.
This game is the second half of a home-and-home, with the teams facing off in South Philly the night before. At this matchup in Ottawa, tired legs will need to be put aside to face a familiar foe, and the second game can either be instant redemption or the start of a winning streak.
Winning both legs of a home-and-home is a great way to gain some midseason momentum.
Days for the All-Star break, the Flyers will face the defending champs.
As the season wears on, each game becomes more and more important, and the current standings indicate that both of these teams will be battling for their playoff lives. Boston’s slow start won’t last, and Philly’s inconsistency will result in both these clubs playing hard hockey to earn every point they can.
On top of that, both teams will be smelling blood. The Flyers ruined Boston’s banner night to open the season, while the Bruins swept the Flyers out of the playoffs last year.
Both teams are physical, desperate and mean. Hockey at its finest.